History tends to decree that the Tudors had problems with heirs. In reality it must have felt to the heirs, on occasion, that they had problems with being Tudor. Henry VIII decreed the order of inheritance beginning with his own children. Not only did he specify the order of inheritance in his will but he ensured that it was enshrined in law with the third Act of Succession of 1544.
In the event of Henry’s own children not having children or surviving to inherit, Henry being Henry broke with the usual rules of inheritance by bypassing the children of his elder sister Margaret by nominating those of his younger sister Mary. His will refers to her as the “French Queen,” a courtesy title that she kept after the death of King Louis XII of France and her subsequent second marriage to Charles Brandon who became Duke of Suffolk. The crown was to go first to the heirs of Frances Brandon who became Lady Frances Grey the mother of Ladies Jane, Katherine and Mary Grey. If that line failed the crown would pass, in theory, to the children of Frances’ younger sister Eleanor who had married Henry Clifford, the 2nd Earl of Cumberland.
There was undoubtedly a paucity of males at that point in proceedings. Eleanor Clifford, born sometime between 1518 and 1521, had produced two sons: Charles and Henry as well as a daughter Margaret pictured at the start of this post. Eleanor died in November 1547 having been married to Henry Clifford in 1535, so she never fully understood the poisoned chalice of her Tudor bloodline. The pair lived in Brougham Castle although the 1st earl went on a bit of a building spree on the strength of having a royal daughter-in-law. The year after her marriage Eleanor was the chief mourner at Katherine of Aragon’s funeral and found herself in the wrong part of the country during the Pilgrimage of Grace. A flight across the moors from Bolton Abbey to Skipton Castle saved her from immediate capture but having arrived at Skipton she found herself besieged. Her husband was in Carlisle dealing with the rebels in Cumberland.
Eleanor does not seem to have spent much time at court although Frances Grey is listed as being present at key occasions such as the baptism of Prince Edward and the arrival of Anne of Cleves. It is perhaps not surprising both Charles and Henry died in their infancies and it would appear from surviving letters that Eleanor did not enjoy robust health. In 1540 though she gave birth to Margaret.
After Eleanor’s death the 2nd Earl of Cumberland would eventually remarry and have sons but the Tudor inheritance would pass to Margaret Clifford. This is evidenced by the fact that John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland initially suggested a marriage between his youngest son Guildford and Margaret. Before contracts could be drawn up John Dudley arranged for his youngest son to marry Margaret’s cousin Lady Jane Grey and in order to ensure that the Tudor line and the Dudleys remained firmly intertwined Margaret was betrothed instead to Andrew Dudley, the duke’s younger brother, in June 1553. Andrew would soon find himself under arrest for his part in Dudley’s bid to bypass Henry VIII’s succession.
Margaret was married instead to Lord Strange, the heir of the Earl of Derby – or in other words into the Stanley family. She married Henry Stanley in 1555 under the watchful gaze of Queen Mary. The pair had four sons but it wasn’t a particularly happy marriage and the pair eventually separated. Of the four sons only two survived to adulthood. Ferdinando Stanley became the Earl of Derby followed by his brother William in 1594. Ferdinando (pictured left) had been earl for only a year and whilst William became the 6th earl as well as Baron Strange it was Ferdinando’s daughters who became co-heiresses to the estates. Inevitably there was a messy court case. I shall return to Ferdinando who may well have died because of his closeness to the throne and also the Stanley suspected adherence to Catholicism.
After the death of Mary Grey the last of her Grey cousins in 1578 Margaret found herself as one of the potential heirs to the English throne. In 1580 she wrote to Walsingham about the “heavy and long-continued displeasure” that she had found herself experiencing. When she died in 1596 she had spent several years under house arrest in Clerkenwell having been arrested on charges of using astrology to predict when Elizabeth I would die – a treasonous act (and one which got Eleanor Cobham into huge amounts of bother in the fifteenth century). Even in death she was careful not to offend Elizabeth as her will testifies:
First, I bequeath my soul into the hands of Almighty God, my only Saviour and Redeemer, by whom I hope only to be saved and by no other ways nor means, and my body to be buried where it shall please the Queen’s Majesty to appoint, or otherwise at the discretion of mine executors.
The line of the French Queen’s youngest daughter was now carried on by Ferdinando’s three daughters; Anne, Frances and Elizabeth. William had no children. In 1596 Anne was created the legal heir presumptive to Elizabeth I bypassing William who was also suspected on account of his closeness to the throne and catholicism.
William (pictured right) was specifically forbidden from joining the Earl of Essex on his campaign in Ireland as it was felt that he might take advantage of the opportunity to do a spot of networking. William, it would’ve to be said, appears to have done nothing to deserve royal suspicion – he was very much a member of the gentry concerning himself with his northern estates and keeping his head down – presumably he didn’t want to end up like his mother or brother. He appears to have been a scholarly type and if you like your conspiracy theories he is one of the contenders for the real Shakespeare based on the fact that George Fenner, a Jesuit, reported that William rather than being interested in politics and matters of religion spent his time “penning common plays” in his house near Chester.
Elizabeth did eventually make him a knight of the garter and King James I made his relation a privy councillor.